If you’ve read any leadership material in your lifetime, chances are you’ve come across references to a mythical creature:
The Visionary Leader
I say “mythical” because the descriptions of this rare and wonderful being depict a creature that is surely too magnificent for our plain-Jane reality:
“Visionary leaders are the builders of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness…They work with the power of intentionality and alignment with a higher purpose. Their eyes are on the horizon, not just on the near at hand. They are social innovators and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically.” Corinne McLaughlin
These great and glorious creatures are bigger than life. Just being around them causes us to get swept up in the tide of their superhumanity:
“Visionaries are propelled by great dreams. They’re pulled along by the grip of destiny. Invariably, the force of their resolve pulls us along with them.” Patrick Morley
Kinda makes you want to be one, huh? Too bad:
“Vision cannot be delegated.” K. Ferlic
“Visionary leaders are…Inspirational…Imaginative…Bold…Magnetic.” Scott Jeffery
So if you’re not those things…sorry. You can be a peon like the rest of us, but you’ll never be a visionary leader.
“But, wait,” you say! “That doesn’t sound right! Because we are in the church and Jesus makes all things new. And aren’t we told that, ‘God didn’t choose the wise, but the foolish, the strong, but the weak?’”
Yeah, but that was then. Apparently, now that we’re in the 21st century, God’s finally got with the program and decided that even in the church, we can’t do without visionary leaders:
“All memorable achievements were brought about by leaders who had vision. God uses visions to excite leaders because excited leaders get the most out of followers. Active followers accomplish much, and Christ’s Body keeps getting bigger thanks to prevailing local churches. Ken Godevenos
Just so we’re clear on the process here:
God Gives a Vision -> Visionary Leader Gets Excited -> Uses Followers More Efficiently -> Builds Bigger Churches
Where’s that in Scripture, you ask? Ken’s going to tell us:
“That is why Proverbs 29:18 clearly states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Let a leader grasp a godly vision, and then watch God work.” Ken Godevenos
But is that what Proverbs 29:18 “clearly states?”
I would argue no.
Proverbs 29:18 “clearly states” something else entirely. Consider the Christian Standard Bible’s translation of this verse:
“Without revelation people run wild, but one who follows divine instruction will be happy.”
We will unpack what this means but, before we go any farther, understand that the vision the church needs is not one that excites a leader to use followers…it’s God’s Word. And while God has given his people pastors who lead, it is ultimately Christ who is the shining hero who builds the church, not any single visionary.
In order to understand Proverbs 29:18 fully, we have to put it in its context.
What is the Context?
- The (Whole) Verse:
When most Christian leadership gurus quote Proverbs 29:18, they only quote half the verse, and they have to pick their translation carefully. Why? Because the context makes it clear that it doesn’t mean what they want it to mean. It is not a defense of the Lone Ranger Leader with the shining white Vision of Justice: it’s stating the general truth that apart from God’s law, mankind falls into the chaos of rebellion.
Let’s look at the translation most people quote from for this verse:
“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” King James Version
Even in the King James, this verse is clearly not about people dying because they don’t have some visionary leader to tell them what to do! The Hebrew word for vision here is never used to reference an individual leader’s vision, but refers to God’s divine revelation. Without which, the verse goes on, the people perish. Perish is translating a Hebrew word that doesn’t mean “die” but means “cast off restraint” or “rebel.” The Christian Standard Bible renders it pretty colorfully with “run wild.” And that gets at the idea. But the verse doesn’t end there, as many would have us believe. Instead, it goes on with a clear contrast: but if you obey God’s divine revelation, you are not rebellious, but are blessed or happy.
- The Chapter
One of the things that makes verses from Proverbs so prone to misuse is that, by nature, proverbs are meant to be “short and pithy.” In other words, they shouldn’t need a lot of explanation or development. So, you might have a proverb about not being greedy right next to one about not being lazy. While both are attempting to steer you away from sin, they are not necessarily related. But there do seem to be themes that nonetheless tie various proverbs together.
A friend pointed out to me that, in Chapter 29, we see a theme of contrast between the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness.
When the righteous flourish, the people rejoice,
but when the wicked rule, people groan.
A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father,
but one who consorts with prostitutes destroys his wealth.
By justice a king brings stability to a land,
but a person who demands “contributions” demolishes it.
An evil person is caught by sin,
but the righteous one sings and rejoices.
The righteous person knows the rights of the poor,
but the wicked one does not understand these concerns.
Mockers inflame a city,
but the wise turn away anger.
Bloodthirsty men hate an honest person,
but the upright care about him.
A fool gives full vent to his anger,
but a wise person holds it in check.
A rod of correction imparts wisdom,
but a youth left to himself is a disgrace to his mother.
When the wicked increase, rebellion increases,
but the righteous will see their downfall.
Without revelation people run wild,
but one who follows divine instruction will be happy.
Proverbs 29:1-18, CSB
Verse 18 is not contrasting a group of people who have a visionary leader with a group of people who do not, but is contrasting the result of submitting to the source of righteousness, God, with submitting to the source of rebellion, ourselves. Indeed, some of the visionary leadership the church has seen has been not the kind that brings blessing, but the kind that throws off the restraint of revelation in favor of selfish desire fulfilling “vision.”
- It’s a Proverb
Finally, in order to understand the context of this verse, we have to start by understanding the nature of a proverb.
Google defines a proverb as, “a short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.”
Why does that matter? Because it’s important for us to understand that proverbs are not unequivocal truth statements, but state “a general truth.” In other words, “this is how the world generally works.”
A “general truth” means that you can find specific examples where it doesn’t. So, when a Christian leadership guru says that Proverbs 29:18 “clearly states” the necessity of visionary leadership, he’s stretching the context of the statement as a proverb, let alone its clear reference to vision as the Word of God.
Because it’s a proverb, we shouldn’t be surprised when we see people who reject God’s revealed Word nonetheless living exemplary lives. This proverb isn’t saying that people who do not submit to the God of the Bible will be holy terrors all the time. It’s simply saying that submitting to God’s Word is the only secure foundation of blessing and happiness, not seeking our own glorification.
So What Does Proverbs 29:18 Mean?
As I was researching this passage, I asked friends on Facebook what they thought this passage meant. The answers were very helpful, but one was particularly so. My friend Clayton Pruett said this:
“(This verse) is not referring to an individual vision for a personal purpose but rather the Word of God that guides his people and society as a whole.”
I love that! Proverbs 29:18 is not a statement of the need for visionary leadership in the church, but a statement of the need for God’s people to be guided by, shaped by, transformed by, the Word of God.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t need leadership in the church. A local church appointed me to lead it, affirming God’s call on my life. God has gifted that church with other capable leaders as well. Indeed, God spends a significant amount of his revelation in the New Testament talking about how the church is to be led. Leadership is important, but not in the way the visionary leadership prophets would have us believe: leadership in the church serves to help us all, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to obey Christ.
This is why when I put a vision before the church I lead in January for us to adopt, it wasn’t a vision containing my best ideas for how to grow the church. No! I don’t want to be a visionary leader if that means me using people to accomplish some dream that I’m excited about. Instead, by God’s grace, I asked the church to agree that we would simply try to obey Jesus. I don’t want us to be a church that waits for some “bold, charismatic” leader to tell us how we’re going to do things: I want us to be a church that loves God so much we will run out into this world to love others in the name of Jesus and make disciples who will do the same. I don’t want people to be impressed with the clarity of my vision: I want us all to be humbled by the immensity of God’s vision. I wish we would be a shining example of love and grace and righteousness to everyone who sees us, an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven. We, as a church, agreed together that our peaks and valleys are not going to be tied to any man’s vision or his comings and goings, but will be tied to our obedience of Christ’s commands in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.
So we agreed to “Love God” through our worship, through our prayer, and through our study of his Word.
We said we will “Love Others” through fellowship, through serving, and through giving.
And we will seek to “Make Disciples” by intentional discipleship, evangelism, and missions.
I wanted to say to the church, contra the leadership mantras, “Don’t look at me, look at Christ. Don’t listen to me, listen to Christ. Don’t submit to my way, submit to Christ’s way.” Because, ultimately, that’s what everything comes down to.
How Do We Read Proverbs 29:18 In Light of Christ?
Proverbs 29:18 is meant, in God’s providence, to point us to Christ. Whatever else it may be, visionary leadership that is not squarely centered on Christ is not Christian leadership. The Teacher in Proverbs points us to the revelation of God, which is simply what God has revealed to us about himself in his Word. And we know that Christ is the final Word from God. We’re not sitting around waiting for some extra revelation that will get us on track, some vision that will set us straight. God already gave us the vision, God has revealed himself fully in Christ. Everything that we need to know about the blessing of God, we see in submitting ourselves to Christ. Everything that we need to know about the perils of “running wild,” we see in those who reject Christ.
The vision for the church is the same as the vision for all of reality which is the same vision the God has for each of his people: that Christ would be “all in all.”
So don’t wait for some magnetic personality to tell you what to do: Treasure Christ. Seek Christ, Desire Christ. Obey Christ by the Holy Spirit for God’s Glory. Because when you do, you will be blessed.
Oh, and just so we’re clear, your church doesn’t need visionary leadership: it needs Jesus.